Did We Just Win A Battle In “The War Over Wine?”

Vinted on October 15, 2013 binned in about 1winedude blog, commentary, wine news

This is the kind of thing that probably gives major wine critics apoplexy.

James Conaway, the talented writer and author of the excellent novel-with-a-wine-soaked-plot Nose, recently penned an article for Worth titled The War Over Wine. It’s cogent, well-conceived, deftly written and fiercely opinionated. In other words, it’s the kind of writing that fills borderline-hacks like me with a burning jealous rage hot enough to turn our faces the shade of a slightly aged Moulin-a-Vent.

Now, normally I don’t pat attention to Worth, mostly because I do not need reading material to fill my time below deck while my yacht is piloted to my own private dessert (whoops!) desert island. Just perusing the Worth.com website is like stumbling upon the remains of some lost civilization that used the same words we do to communicate, but put them in sequences that no longer have any meaning for us. It’s how Shakespeare appears to the high school student, or how Wine & Spirits appears to mortal wine drinkers, or how Umberto Eco appears to everyone who can read.

Seriously, topics can be found there such as Mutual Fund Strategies in the Aftermath of the 2008 Financial Crisis, the ever-popular Where Is the Best Opportunity in the High-End Luxury Space?, and my personal favorite, 10 Questions for Your Chief Innovation Officer (‘cuz I only had eight questions for mine, so I am clearly a 99-percenter slacker!)

Anyway… Conaway’s piece seems somewhat out of place in Worth in that context, but it’s the kind of article that makes me want to take up arms and shout from the rooftops, in the hope that it’s less a tempest-in-a-teapot and more a topical-sh*tstorm-about-to-explode (as The Tick might have shouted, “from the mighty butt checks of wine media justice!”)…

It’s a long piece, but the gist of it can be summed up, I think, in this quote (emphasis mine):

Established wineries and critics once dismissed bloggers as anarchic and too diverse to move wine on a large scale. Not any more. The growing number of wine bloggers and their readers has resulted in a broad reassessment of how wine is presented to the increasingly sophisticated American wine drinker, for whom gold medals and one-to-100 rankings seem simplistic. And many of the most influential of these new critics don’t think much of the Parker/Spectator duopoly. Neither Parker nor the Spectator looked kindly upon winemakers who didn’t cotton to their style; some winemakers feel they were punished for years for making subtler, more classically structured wines suitable with food. Now the tide seems to be turning in their favor. Many younger drinkers focus not on points but on “context,” the particularity of a wine that includes agricultural, environmental and even social factors.”

I’m quoted in the piece, in which Conaway spirals through the rise of Robert Parker and the 100 point wine scoring system, the advent of Wine Spectator (the staff of which who, incidentally, continually hit my email address up with PR requests asking me to promote their events and press releases here), and the explosion of wine in the social media sphere.

For what it’s worth – and I think it’s worth quite a bit – Conaway seems to see wine blogging and the new diversity of critical wine voices as a necessary breath of fresh air for the wine industry. Which might not sound at first like it matters, but it does; wine sales numbers are huge, for starters, and for those who care about wine more deeply, that critical diversity is becoming a more proper reflection of the vast diversity now available in high quality fine wines. To wit, here is Conaway’s conclusion, which nicely ties up why all his article hubbub is worth it:

“Every state in the union now produces wine. Its growth as both a homegrown and imported commodity, whether cheap or luxurious, affects quality of life as surely as it does the health of businesses and households in some way dependent upon it. Thomas Jefferson’s vision of wine as the chosen beverage of Americans creeps closer, and today the individual finds the vast universe of wine most easily engaged and comprehended in the ether of the internet. Even at the high end, wine and those enterprises built around it shouldn’t be dependent upon a few critics or, for that matter, on a relatively few, potentially fickle buyers interested only in scores and attendant bragging rights. What many bottles need are many voices.

Amen, bro.

There’s just a ton of potential argument-inducing implications throughout this thought-provoking piece: Conaway’s stance making it potential agenda-driven agitprop against mainstream wine media; wine producers growing tired of having to pay political fealty to yesterday’s critics; visions of the wine blogging world as a modern atavistic reflection of the way wine was covered in the days before the Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator. Take your pick, it’s all there!

Adding to the anecdotal evidence in support of Conaway being partially insane, he was kind enough to include me in his list of “The New Guard” of wine criticism (all people who have made a serious digital play in the wine sphere), which  includes the venerable Jancis Robinson (yeah, I know, she’s been at this wine thing for something like four decades, I don’t get why she’s “new,” either), local wine meme champion Dave McIntyre, tough-grader critic Stephen Tanzer, Vinography’s Alder Yarrow, Vintank’s Paul Mabray, PR guru Tom Wark,  and natural wine’s most vocal (and talented) proponent, Alice Feiring. And it’s just not a bad day when someone counts you in company like that.

Part of me suspects that the members of this new guard will have targets painted on our foreheads, in that the Wine Spectators of the world will come to completely hate us. Which for me could be a good thing, because it means they’ll stop PR-spamming me. But another part of me is thinking, and now we wait for the mainstream wine press to just completely ignore this story

Cheers!

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    Comments

  • SAHMmelier


    Wow! Great read. It is great to hear that our opininons are "Worth"y of taking notice. And you have earned your spot on that list. Cheers.

    • 1WineDude


      Thanks!

  • Ron Washam, HMW


    Hey Joe,
    Is that yacht you sail to your "dessert" island the Good Ship Lollipop?

    While Conaway's Worth piece may be articulate, it simply recycles arguments that have been around since Tom Wark began typing about wine. What makes me laugh is its placement in a publication aimed at folks in a high tax bracket, folks who certainly must spend a lot of time reading Alice and Tom and Paul Mabray to get advice on which Bordeaux futures to purchase. I'm sure the affluence average of your regular readers has just skyrocketed.

    Truly, there isn't much new or interesting in his piece. Though that is a hilarious lineup of influential New Guard wine people. Jancis could not be more Old Guard, Alder writes for Jancis once in a while, Wark is part of the marketing industry that surrounds wine and caters to folks like Wine Spectator and Parker, and Tanzer has been around a long time and still has virtually no influence (ask any wine shop, or winery). Those three are hardly convincing evidence of Conaway's recycled arguments. You, on the other hand, have worked hard and do have influence, much to your credit.

    The current infatuation with the wisdom of the crowd that the Intergnats symbolizes is a passing fancy. It's not democracy, and not particularly valuable. It's mostly just noise. To which I grandly contribute.

    • 1WineDude


      HMW,Egads! Fifty lashes for me for that typo! Appreciate your thoughts, and I agree that the article isn't new. However, it is exposing a very different audience to those themes, which is interesting. Whether or not those themes are worth thinking about is another debate entirely :-)

  • Solomon Mengeu


    Mr. Roberts an interesting post and as in all things in life there are two sides to everyone coin and no matter what your place in the wine world; whether you are a merchant/negociant , blogger, writer, wine critic, somm, you have to see both sides of the spectrum.

    I did find it amusing that Robinson was in the "New Guard" category, she is definitely always quite adventuresome & open-minded; but she has been around for a few decades. I think there a few bloggers whose writings/opinions and insights are worthy of reading and attention.

    You are one of them, I can't say that I agree with everything you write or espouse but generally you are impartial and eager to learn new things. Jamie Goode over at the Wine Anorak is another of the bloggers who now is somewhat between the geek/alternative vein & the very mainstream WS or Wine Advocate.

    I would say Palate Press does a pretty good job of providing news, perspective & education to its readers.

    All in all its a positive development that the wine press world, both on-line and non- on-line is more diversified than the past.

    Cheers!

    Solomon Mengeu

    • 1WineDude


      Solomon – thanks for the kind words! Regarding Jancis, the best I can figure is that her primary work at this point is probably digital, though not sure how that makes her new, either :-) Cheers.

  • doug wilder


    Joe,

    Sadly, I think the answer is no. In the last year when I sit down with winemakers in California, among the subjects we discuss is the impact of blogs on their bottom line. Pretty much with the exception of you and Alder possibly tasting the wine, the response is, "We don't know who these people are". Typically the office will look into the blog and determine it isn't a fit. As one proprietor told me, "we need to be really sure who we are sending $200 bottles to".

    I think until bloggers define themselves in a finite regional niche and 'own it', they will never materialize as a viable option to mainstream critics in the band that most people look for guidance in. (>$30). Jumping on a plane to take sponsored trips around the world is great, I'm sure, but at the end of the day where is the influence in any particular area. From a US perspective, I would be surprised if you could name one blogger who tastes a defined region, pay there own way and create interest in a brand. I look at the best blogs out there and the writer is dabbling all over the globe. That kind of thing causes wineries to engage them sparingly.

    I can't complete this post without mentioning that I doubt that Tom Wark would characterize himself as a critic. Tapped in and authoratative about PR and legislation, but Conaway is off the mark there.

    • 1WineDude


      Doug, while I tend to think the influence of any single critical source is usually insanely over hyped, you need to be careful that your sample pool isn’t too myopic. There are very influential bloggers in any sphere and most of them don’t pay their own way to go anywhere. Having said that,I agree totally with you that people are ignoring the opportunity to specialize their coverage, and I’ve written about that – ok, preached about that! – many times here…:-)

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